Errors in electrical work practices can vary. Still, experts have identified patterns.
One frequent theme? Overconfidence leading to complacency.
“Some people will think that, ‘Oh, this task is just going to take a minute. I forgot to finish something.’ They don’t think it through,” said Jim Phillips, who has helped develop numerous U.S. and international electrical safety standards. “Electrical safety doesn’t care about how long you’re on the job. Incidents can happen whether the task takes one minute, one day, one week.”
So, what are some recurring mistakes related to electrical work, and how can safety professionals address them?
Treating electrical work casually
“We observe people treating electrical work like a run-of-the-mill task, often unaware of the electrical hazards,” said Zarheer Jooma, a Louisville, KY-based electrical engineer for training provider e-Hazard. “Others appear knowledgeable but do nothing to control the risk of electrical injuries, driven by the belief that they’re working safely and thus immune to injury.”
This behavior is common even among the most experienced electrical workers, Jooma added.
It raises concerns about whether employes and workers are complying with a crucial part of NFPA 70E – the National Fire Protection Association’s standard for electrical safety in the workplace.
Although not enforced by OSHA, NFPA 70E is “the primary consensus standard addressing electrical hazards,” the agency says.
NFPA 70E states that only a “qualified person” can perform electrical work. A qualified person is someone who has “demonstrated skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to identify the hazards and reduce the associated risk.”
Some employers may leave the judgment of a situation’s safety to a worker unfamiliar with the basics. And smaller employers may find it difficult to implement electrical safety rules because they often don’t have safety pros or subject matter experts on staff, Jooma noted.
“But even some safety specialists and electrical SMEs struggle with electrical safety concepts,” he added. “Electricity is complicated and electrical equipment may be highly specialized. Electrical workers are troubleshooting with the circuit energized, without being able to see it or sense it, adding another level of complexity to managing electrical safety.”
Possible solution: Jooma suggests employers develop and implement a safety management system that combines written programs, training and periodic auditing.
“There needs to be more formalized education on electrical safety, and this can be at community colleges, universities, employer programs or easily accessible self-study programs.”
Not accounting for all scenarios
Workers can become hyperfocused on the task at hand, which can result in tunnel vision.
“Often what hurts a person is not the thing they were working on specifically,” Jooma said, “but something else that occurs.”
NFPA 70E Section 110.5(H) states that an organizational electrical safety program should require the development of a risk assessment procedure that outlines processes to identify hazards, assess risks and implement the Hierarchy of Controls before work starts.
Possible solutions: “Ensure regular training is done and the company-written electrical safety program contains all needed requirements, including a comprehensive electrical job safety plan check sheet,” said Lee Marchessault, founder and president of consulting firm Workplace Safety Solutions.
Analyze the effectiveness of your organization’s risk assessments and written procedures. Proper risk assessments can not only identify hazards, but also evaluate the need for protective measures such as energy isolation.
In an August 2022 blog post, NFPA senior electrical engineer Chris Coache writes that risk assessments require knowledge of the task, its location, the equipment and tools to be used, and the competency of the worker. Consistency is critical to approaching these issues.
“Without it,” Coache writes, “an employee conducting an assessment may tolerate a risk level that is not acceptable, ignore hazards that have been previously recognized or improperly apply the Hierarchy of Risk Controls. Training an employee to follow NFPA 70E Section 110.5(H) rather than your documented procedure will introduce such unsafe practices.”
3. Using improper PPE
At issue: Work uniforms or personal protective equipment catching on fire often leads to serious injuries and fatalities, experts say.
One cause: arc flash incidents, which occur when “a flashover of electric current leaves its intended path and travels through the air from one conductor to another,” OSHA says.
Arc flash events cause explosions that can reach temperatures as high as 35,000° F and register sound levels up to 160 decibels.
Possible solution: Make sure your employer is compliant with OSHA’s standard on electric power generation, transmission and distribution (1910.269). It requires that workers who are exposed to arc hazards wear arc-rated PPE, and further adds that the outer layer of clothing must be flame resistant when the estimated incident heat energy surpasses 2.0 cal/cm2.
The standard also states that employers “shall ensure” all workers exposed to electrical arc or fire hazards don’t wear clothing that could ignite or melt onto their skin.
NFPA 70E includes a table for choosing arc-rated PPE based on PPE-rated categories. Experts note that although AR clothing is flame resistant, not all FR clothing is arc rated. When purchasing clothing, check that it includes an arc rating on the label and complies with applicable American Society for Testing and Materials standards.
“All PPE should be inspected before each day’s use,” Marchessault said.
4. Underestimating arc flash boundary
Phillips – the founder of Brainfiller, an electrical power and electrical safety training company – frequently encounters other errors related to arc flash.
First, he said, workers believe that standing outside the arc flash boundary means they’re safe. The boundary is the distance from the arc flash source where the incident energy falls to 1.2 calories per square centimeter.
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘safe zone’ because 1.2 calories per square centimeter is the industry-accepted value where the onset of the second-degree burn can occur,” Phillips said. “So, you’re standing right there in potential first-degree burn territory. Plus, if there’s an arc flash, there’s the possibility of shrapnel, there’s debris.”
Possible solution: “So,” Phillips added, “it’s best for people that aren’t properly dressed, that shouldn’t be there, to just get out of the way. Stay out of the room. Stay out of the area. Forget about how close you can get with this arc flash boundary.”
Secondly, equipment doors can’t be relied on to provide an effective barrier against arc flash, unless the equipment is specially designed.
“I’ve conducted arc flash tests over the years, and I’ve had many where the doors just blow right open because of the pressure, even with smaller arc flashes,” Phillips said. “So, thinking the doors will protect you, that’s another common mistake.”
5. Relying on institutional knowledge
In Jooma’s experience, tribal knowledge that’s counter to the latest safety practices often finds its way into electrical safety programs.
One reason: It’s not uncommon for an organization’s entire electrical safety program to be developed by a single experienced employee.
“The problem with this approach,” Jooma said, “is that this person has spent the majority of their career within that organization, [and is] lacking a wider field of vision. We would recommend that they attend accredited electrical safety training, consult SMEs when developing programs and perform third-party independent reviews.”
Possible solution: Jooma suggests challenging what he calls a “compliance-driven” training approach – such as employers sending their staff to a daylong electrical safety class and then doing nothing else.
Instead, he supports a “safety-driven” approach – developing electrical safety management systems that consider safety through design, electrical risk management programs, job observations, refresher training, provision of PPE and tools, auditing, and electrical incident investigations.
This must be a continuously improving and evolving program to drive down electrical fatalities, disabling injuries and equipment damage.
“You have to question your motivation for electrical safety training,” Jooma said. “The fundamental reason should be zero injuries and zero equipment damage due to electrical hazards.”